Back to the Future (Buddha): Maitreya


Today is October 21st, 2015, and it is like any other day…except this is the day, according to the “Back to the Future” film series when Marty and Doc went from 1985 to “the future” of 2015.  Hoverboards and flying cars seem to elude the future we live in, but one thing that isn’t eluding us is the future Buddha (Maitreya Buddha)!

Alright, before you go “Back to Browsing the Internet”, this is a two-part article: First, let’s talk about this future Buddha, and then I will explain how the film series “Back to the Future” can teach us some important lessons about Buddhism.

Back to the Buddha by Alan Peto

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The Buddha Goes Back to the Future

Relying on certain Mahayana Buddhist citations and quotations, we believe that in this fortunate aeon one thousand buddhas will appear. This is the time of the fourth buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, whose teaching is still existing, and the fifth Buddha will be Maitreya Buddha.  ~ His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama

According to the Cakkavattisihananda Sutta (and a few others), Shakyamuni Buddha explained to his followers that he was not the first Buddha, nor would he be the last!

He stated that another Buddha would arise in the future during this Kalpa (I will explain what a Kalpa is later) and have many followers.

Ven. Ananda (one of the greatest of the Buddha’s disciples) asked how people would know him, to which the Buddha replied that this future Buddha would be known as Maitreya (Metteyya).  All schools and branches of Buddhism recognize this future Buddha (yes, that means both Theravada and Mahayana).

The Buddha said (emphasis added):

And in that time of the people with an eighty thousand year life span, there will arise in the world a blessed lord, an arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya*, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a well farer, knower of the worlds, incomparable trainer of men to be tamed, teacher of gods and men, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now… Then King Sankha will re-erect the long lost palace of King Maha Panada, which was drowned in the Ganges, and, having lived in it, he will give it up and present it to the ascetics and Brahmins, the beggars, the wayfarers, the destitute. Then, shaving off hair and beard, he will don a yellow robe and go forth from the householders life into homelessness under the supreme Buddha Maitreya. Having gone forth, he will remain alone, in seclusion, ardent, eager and resolute, and before long he will have attained in this very life, by his own super-knowledge and resolution, that unequalled goal of the holy life, for the sake of which young men of good family go forth from the household life into homelessness, and will abide therein.

* (Sanskrit:  Maitreya)

However, before Maitreya Buddha would arise in our world, there are quite a few things that would need to happen first.

88 MPH?!  Wait Until We Get to 80,000 Years Old!

While Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the movie Back to the Future only needed to get their time machine DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour to go forward, or backward, in time. When it comes to seeing Maitreya Buddha, we are going to have to wait an awfully long time.

Here is what will happen:

  1. Human Lifespans Decrease:  In the future, the teachings of the current Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, will all be forgotten in our world.  Humans will live shorter…more unskillful and immoral…lives.  Interestingly, the Buddha said humans used to live for 80,000 (or 82,000 years based on some interpretations) because unskillful behavior was unknown to them.  There used to be seven wheel-turning monarchs (kings) in the world, and this allowed the ideal conditions where people lived for this long.  One of the monarchs failed to provide for the poor, and theft occurred.  Eventually, other immoral and unskillful ways began to increase.  When humans started to behave in unskillful ways, our life spans began to decrease until we are where we are currently, which is roughly 100 years (the same as when Shakyamuni Buddha awakened).  Humans will continue to live shorter lives (due to decreasing morality and unskillful lives) until our life span only reaches 10 years old (and sexual maturity will be reached at 5 years old)
  2. The Real “Hunger Games“:  Eventually, when humans are living only for 10 years, conditions (and morality) will get to a terrible point where violence and horrible ways become the norm (people will be living and behaving like animals).  This time will be known as the “sword-interval”, and people begin to hunt each other like game.  A seven-day war will occur where many will die.  There will be those who flee this violence (to mountains, forests, etc.) until it is over.  When they return, they will resolve to take up a life of skillful and virtuous action again.  Because people have returned to skillful and virtuous actions, the human life span will grow to 20 years, then increasing steadily to an incalculable number of years due to this increase in morality, but eventually, it will start decreasing and return to 80,000 years (with sexual maturity at 500 years).
  3. Maitreya Arises:  When humans return to 80,000 years in life expectancy, Maitreya Buddha will be living on the earth and become awakened (Buddha’s are said to arise only when lifespans begin to decline).  He will be the fifth Buddha of this current Kalpa (known as the Bhadra-Kalpa, or Auspicious aeon), succeeding Shakyamuni Buddha.  While there is no true estimate about when Maitreya Buddha will be on this earth, it is expressed in about 4,000 years after Shakyamuni Buddha reached nirvana.  Thus, we have about 1,500 years to go!  Depending on what you believe, it is said that Maitreya Buddha will be able to live for 80,000 years (because Shakyamuni Buddha lived for 80 years when humans could only live for 100 years)

Now I’m sure you are thinking “we will eventually live until we are 80,000 years old?!” or “we are first only going to live to 10 years old?!” are both very extreme, and specific, life spans Shakyamuni Buddha revealed.  Whether he was using “skillful means” to explain concepts (meaning we shouldn’t take him literally here), or whether this was accurate, only time will tell.

Perhaps we could even look at our animal world for some clues…many of our animal companions (such as dogs and cats) rapidly gain sexual maturity at an extremely young age and die sooner than us.  Could this be a similar outlook for us?  We can also see how some animals live extremely long lives (that span over 200 years).  In our animal world (and that includes us), anything is possible!   While I think 80,000 life expectancy for a human is quite extreme, there may be some hidden knowledge of our world that we yet don’t fully understand.  The way I interpret this, is how humans are behaving (like animals) and not how long they actually live in a physical sense.

A Kalpa is a Really, Really, Really Long Time

Speaking of hidden knowledge, I was quite overwhelmed to learn about what a “Kalpa” is.  This is both a Hindu and Buddhist term used to describe extreme periods of time.  This is an important thing to learn, as it relates to when we will see Maitreya Buddha in our world.

  • A Kalpa is an expression of the creation and recreation of a world (we have had several Kalpas, and Buddhas, before Shakyamuni Buddha, and more will come).  There are four different lengths for Kalpas (regular or traditional expression of this is about 16 million years long, a small expression is about 16 billion years long, a medium expression is 320 billion years long, and a great Kalpa is about 1.28 trillion years long).  Kalpa’s can have up to 1,000 Buddha’s who come one-by-one in them.  Some Kalpa’s have no Buddha’s.
  • We are currently living in the “Bhadra Kalpa”, known as the “Fortune Aeon” which is one of the most favorable aeon’s to occur.  We are using a regular expression for this current Kalpa, meaning it lasts about 16 million years.  There have already been four Buddha’s in this Kalpa, including Shakyamuni Buddha, of whom we currently follow and know his teachings.  There are 29 named Buddha’s, including Shakyamuni and Maitreya.  Maitreya Buddha will be the fifth, and last, Buddha in this Kalpa when the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha become unknown (Yes, that means the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha…the Buddha we all know right now…will become unknown.  Thus, we are obviously not at this point yet).

You can learn more about Kalpha’s in Buddhism by visiting this website.

Is Maitreya…Real?

First, let us start off with what Shakyamuni Buddha reportedly said:

I am not the first Buddha to come upon earth, nor shall I be the last. Previously there were many Buddha’s who appeared in this world. In due time, another Buddha will arise in this world, a Holy One, a Supremely Enlightened One, endowed with wisdom, in auspicious conduct, knowing the universe, an incomparable leader of men, a master of devas and men. He will reveal to you the same Eternal Truths which I have taught you. He will proclaim a religious life, wholly perfect and pure, such as I now proclaim. He will be known as Maitreya, which means kindness or friendliness. ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

An interesting interpretation by scholar Richard Gombrich (Oxford Centre of Buddhist Studies) believes the Maitreya story is either false or tampered with:

At the end of the sermon we meet the next Buddha, Metteyya. Since he occurs in no other sermon, this casts doubt on the sermon’s authenticity. Another suspicious feature is that the myth is set in an inappropriate frame. Most of the Buddha’s sermons are presented as preached in answer to a question or in some other appropriate context; but this one has a beginning and an ending in which the Buddha is talking to monks about something totally different. Either the whole text is apocryphal or at least it has been tampered with.

I would tend to agree with him on this when looked at the whole of “Maitreya”, including the lifespans of humans, predictions of a bloody war, etc.  Shakyamuni Buddha wouldn’t even talk about the existence of a single God (or even Gods), but he goes into detail about a future Buddha in specific detail in a sermon where it feels out of place.

So, does this mean you shouldn’t “believe” in Maitreya?  I would argue that it does really matter either way!

If believing in Maitreya helps you along the path of Buddhism, great!  If it finds you comfort and solace, great!  If it inspires you to do good, follow the eightfold path, dive deeper into the teachings, great!

In Buddhism, we are constantly encouraged to “verify” the teachings and don’t take them just on faith, of which we can!  So, how do we verify Maitreya?  Well, we can’t for at least another 1,500 years.  With that in mind, Maitreya doesn’t factor into my practice…but that doesn’t mean it can’t factor into yours if you find him beneficial!  Just remember, the Dharma is truth and available to all, and anyone can attain enlightenment…you don’t have to wait for a future Buddha.

Maitreya in Nepal. Photo by Alexander Shafir on WikiMedia (CC License)
Maitreya in Nepal. Photo by Alexander Shafir on WikiMedia (CC License)

Everyone Wants to be Maitreya

Even though we have about 1,500 more years before the world gets to meet Maitreya Buddha, that has not stopped quite a few people have claimed (or have been claimed to be by others) Maitreya in our current world.  Even the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, suggested he was Maitreya in a 1955 poem!

For all that claim (or others who claim these people are) to be Maitreya, there are two simple ways to verify the claim as true:

  1. A devastating 7-day war (humans will be living for around 10 years as a lifespan during this period) will have to occur first
  2. Humans will start living longer and longer, and then start decreasing again until they are living for about 80,000 years as a lifespan (we are not even close to this yet)
  3. This is when Maitreya will be in our world (it is said he resides in “Tushita heaven” until this time).  Maitreya will be a Buddha just like Shakyamuni (teachings, beliefs, way of life, etc.).  This is a crucial point…as none who have claimed (or been associated with) Maitreya have done this.

So, relax folks…Maitreya absolutely has not lived in our world yet.  And that’s OK!

Do You Have to Wait for Maitreya Buddha?

No, you do not (and should not).  While some Buddhists believe they need to perform certain deeds to make sure they are reborn in the time of Maitreya Buddha to become enlightened and realize nirvana, this is not the case.

According to Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera:

Buddhists believe that those people who at present are doing meritorious deeds by leading a religious life will have a chance to be reborn as human beings in the time of Maitreya Buddha and will obtain Nibbana identical with that of Gautama Buddha. In this way they will find salvation through the guidance of His Teaching. His Teaching will become a hope of the remote future for everybody. However, according to the Buddha devout religious people can gain this Nabbanic bliss at any time if they really work for it irrespective of whether a Buddha appears or not.

Because humans have the capability to become enlightened/awakened all on their own, they don’t need to wait for the next Buddha to come around for it!  However, some believe that in the absence of a living Buddha, coupled with the more time that passes after a Buddha leaves this earth in physical form, the less likely it is for people to realize nirvana.

There is some truth to this belief because a living teacher can provide the capabilities for success that is unequaled.  We can see that in our lives where reading from a textbook is often no match to having a teacher that can not only provide personal guidance but be someone we can associate and make a connection with.

Despite the amazing stretch Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings and impact have taken (2,500 years and tens of millions of practitioners), eventually his teachings (despite being the truth) will fall out of favor.  This is coupled with the fact that fewer and fewer are achieving nirvana as time increases (coupled with increasing immorality and lack of skillful ways which hinder the environment).

This isn’t to mean that humans can’t achieve nirvana, just that it is more conducive when a Buddha is present and teaching in our world.

Many Buddhists, especially those in Chinese Buddhism, celebrate Maitreya Buddha’s “birthday” on the 1st day of the 1st moon of the Chinese lunar calendar (which is Chinese New Year Day).  Typically, Maitreya is popularly ‘worshiped’ culturally for wealth and happiness.

However, those who believe in Maitreya in a more religious/Buddhist sense can follow his (future) example daily by living life virtuously, and reciting his name (much like how Amitābha Buddha’s name is often recited daily by Chinese Buddhists and others).

What About That Laughing Pot Bellied Guy?

Maitreya Buddha is often depicted in many ways depending on the country, and Buddhist school or sect that is interpreting it.

For example, what many in the West refer to as the “Laughing Buddha”, was a Ch’an (“Zen”) monk named Hotei (also known as Budai, Pu-tai, etc.).  However, he is often interpreted and believed to be an incarnation of Maitreya.

Because of his behavior, teachings, and appearance, local people believed and reinforced he was an incarnation of Maitreya (in addition to a poem he recited before his death). Some superstition always seems to creep in, and there are Buddhists who worship this depiction of Maitreya for good luck and prosperity.

Photo by WM Jas on Flickr (CC License)
彌勒佛 (Maitreya). Photo by WM Jas on Flickr (CC License)

Other interpretations of Maitreya often show him sitting with his feet on the ground (complete opposite to how we normally see Shakyamuni Buddha in a “lotus” style position), standing (“actively” engaged in spreading the Dharma), lavish decoration (such as wearing a headdress and jewels),  and of course in a typical cross leg styled pose just like Shakyamuni Buddha.

32 metre statue of Maitreya Buddha near Diskit Monastery facing down the Shyok River, Leh, Ladakh. Photo by Pranav Bhasin on Flickr (CC License)
32 metre statue of Maitreya Buddha near Diskit Monastery facing down the Shyok River, Leh, Ladakh. Photo by Pranav Bhasin on Flickr (CC License)

A great explanation of why Maitreya is depicted differently is from Ven. Master Sheng Yen (for more information about how Chinese Buddhism interprets Maitreya, refer to his Buddhanet article:

What will the real Maitreya Buddha look like when he arises in our physical earth?  Come back in 1,500 years and see! Well, unless you have a DeLorean time machine, and you can just go back to the future!

DeLorean Time Machine. Photo by Terabass on WikiMedia (CC License)
DeLorean Time Machine. Photo by Terabass on WikiMedia (CC License)

What the Back to the Future Movie Series Can Teach Us

Now that we have learned about the future Buddha, Maitreya, we can have a little fun (and learn something also)!  The fantastic movie series (Back to the Future) was never intended to teach Buddhism, however I enjoy showing how we can find Buddhist teachings everywhere we look (and this movie series is no exception).

Throughout all three movies, a common thread occurs

  1. Everything is interconnected (actions have consequences)
  2. The future is not set (karma doesn’t control you and impermanence)
  3. Patience under insult.

1) Everything is Interconnected

In the movie, we saw that how everything Marty McFly did in the past and future had an impact upon his reality in 1985.

By interfering with his parents meeting as teenagers, he was almost erased from history.  When he decided to (out of greed) bring a book of sports statistics from the future back to 1985 (but was intercepted by the “Future” Biff who brought it to his younger self in 1955), his reality of 1985 was turned into a horrible world of violence and suffering.

Every action taken, no matter how small it seemed, had an impact on their reality of 1985.  Often, Doc Brown would remark that he could not wait to destroy the time machine and it was the worst thing he ever created.

What we can take from this, is that we don’t have to be time travelers to impact our world.  All our actions have consequences, for good or bad, known as “cause and effect”.

We saw in the movies where the actions did have wholesome “good” consequences, as well as unwholesome “bad” consequences.  In our world, we should always strive towards creating good “wholesome” karma, not because of how it will impact us, but because it is the right thing to do for others.

2) You’re Future Isn’t Set, It’s Whatever You Make It

We know that actions have consequences, but that doesn’t mean the karma that results from it will impact us forever.  Performing wholesome “good” karmic actions ensures we can dilute the unwholesome karma that is generated.

While Marty and Doc were able to time travel around to correct these “mistakes”, we don’t have such a luxury.  We can’t change the past, but we can impact the here and now and the future.  Remember, nothing is permanent and no matter what unwholesome karma you have created (or are impacted by), you have the power to always create wholesome karma.

Because you are not a time traveler, you may not see the fruits of these karmic actions, but that doesn’t mean it won’t occur (wholesome or unwholesome) one day in the future.

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains:

Properly understood, the concept of impermanence can be a great aid in difficult situations.  If we are poor, impermanence can teach us that our circumstances will not last forever.  If we meet with a setback in our work, it can teach us not to despair.  If we meet with hardship or tragedy, impermanence can teach us that one day, things will change again for the better.  Impermanence tells us that nothing stays the same; it teaches us that things can change for the better if we truly work to better our circumstances.

 3) It’s OK To Be Called Chicken

It wasn’t until the third movie when Marty McFly was in 1885 that he learned from his great grandfather that his brother, Martin McFly, was killed because he didn’t want to be considered a coward.

Because Marty McFly always reacted when someone called him “chicken” (or “yellow” when he was in 1885), he always found himself suffering greatly (everything from Biff being able to retrieve the sports statistics book and beating him, to future Marty who did an illegal act out of fear of being labeled a chicken at work).

Unknown to Marty, his girlfriend (and future wife) Jennifer knew that he would suffer greatly in his life when he got into a car accident in 1985 during a speed contest with Needles (once again because he was called chicken).

After Marty learned his lesson in the last movie in 1885 and returned to 1985, he altered his future of suffering by not racing Needles and never was in a car accident.

The Sutra in Forty-Two Sections contains the following:

Where does the greatest power lie?
It lies in patience under insult.
Those who are patient do not feel resentment
and thus they are honored by all.

Marty eventually learned what is taught in the Yogacharabhumi Shastra, which says that true patience under insult requires that you don’t become angry, or resentful, or harbor evil thoughts.

When Marty finally realized this, he changed his life (and his future), and so can you!


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